When the Super Bowl ends sometime around 10 p.m. EDT this Sunday it will mark not just the end of a very curious but interesting football season. It is also will mark the beginning of the dullest period of the sports season.
Fortunately, the dull times don’t last too long as it’s at most a few weeks until major league teams report to spring training. Until then, though, you have time to catch up on Mad Men before the next season starts in March or waste your time with meaningless games in whatever sport you follow.
The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team, talented and athletic and a real contender for a national championship, have a difficult schedule ahead over the last half of their regular season, but the presence of a Big Ten tournament and the knowledge that the Buckeyes will be in the NCAA tournament come March render these upcoming games mildly interesting and overwhelmingly irrelevant, like the Plain Dealer on a good day.
Far worse, though, is the NBA season and not just because the Cavaliers are still in the early stages of a major rebuild which, if history is any indication, is a minimum 8 year process. If there are any NHL fans in this area, and I suppose there probably are a few, nothing much interesting happens this time of year, either. Like the NBA, more teams make the playoffs then should and only a few teams really have a chance of taking the crown. That much was known months ago and not much has changed in the interim.
So what we’re left with for the next few weeks is to engage in postseason speculation when it comes to the Browns, preseason bitching when it comes to the Indians and in season indifference when it comes to the Cavs.
Let’s start with the Cavs. With them, the current mostly boring debate surrounds whether or not the team should just continue on a losing path for the rest of the season in order to secure a better draft pick. Right now, the Cavs would make the playoffs and wouldn’t make the lottery. It’s a situation known as NBA purgatory. There are only a few teams with a legitimate chance to make the NBA Finals. There are a few others that are close to that level and thus would likely benefit from the seasoning that the NBA playoffs bring. The rest of the teams though are just spinning their wheels in the most unproductive manner possible in purgatory.
There is no good that could come from the Cavs making the playoffs this season. They are simply too far away to reap any tangible benefit from playing in the postseason. If/when the Cavs are able to cobble together enough pieces and parts to make a far more legitimate run, most of the players on the current team will be playing elsewhere. In other words, getting playoff experience under their belts, to the extent that matters, won’t benefit the Cavs anyway.
All that said, of course, it’s ridiculous to think about tanking an entire NBA season. Professional athletes for the most part are imbued with a strong sense of pride and competitiveness. They may know their team sucks, but when the whistle blows they still tend to play hard if only because they don’t want to be embarrassed.
There are notable exceptions to this of course. The Cavs, for example, have had rosters full of players that mailed it in for millions a year. But this Cavs roster isn’t of that ilk. They aren’t talented enough to compete at the highest levels but neither are they jaded enough to spend the rest of the season going through the motions.
I don’t think that fans need to worry anyway. Water finds its level and for this Cavs team, that’s somewhere far closer to the ceiling then the upper floors. The lottery looks secure for another season.
The Indians, on the other hand, are about to embark on another gun fight once again wielding a dull knife. They spent another offseason gathering spare parts and broken hearts through barter while the key competition around them acquired assets with cash.
It’s to their detriment but not their fault that they didn’t acquire Prince Fielder and his expanding waist line. It was an ill advised move by the Detroit Tigers. But it does emphasize why the Indians will always fall short of filling the gaps they need. They are essentially playing in a different league when it comes to better financed teams.
The acquisition of Fielder by the Tigers is interesting because it somewhat dispels the notion of small market vs. big market teams. I don’t think of Detroit as a big market anymore although that tide could be turning along with the fortunes of the auto industry. They're just a small market with a big market thinking owner.
That said, I don’t recommend that any team, least of all the Indians, overpay someone like Fielder who looks like he took training tips from an online consortium run by CC Sabathia and Dinner Bell Mel Turpin. The contract the Tigers committed to for Fielder will be a bigger millstone around their neck then the Travis Hafner contract has been around the Indians’.
I fully expect that Fielder will have some good numbers for the next year or two and some of that will come at the expense of the Indians as they try to claw back into relevance. But come years 6, 7, 8 and 9, if not years 3, 4 and 5, someone in Detroit is going to lose his job for green lighting Project Fielder for $200+ million.
Meanwhile, back at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the Indians are putting on their usual offseason flourish designed to systematically lower expectations as part of their overriding goal each year to under promise and over deliver.
Indeed that’s why last season felt like such a revelation. With nothing promised, the Indians easily exceeded expectations. The problem is that with the limited bit of a success comes the implied obligation to further upgrade. Instead fans received the same warmed over players that can be had on the cheap as they rehab from injuries. About the only thing different from any number of seasons past is that the Indians applied that same criteria to one of their own, Grady Sizemore.
The key word in every Indians’ offseason is “if,” as in, “if Grady Sizemore can stay healthy” or “if Kevin Slowey can stay healthy” or, well, you get the picture. But as we know full well by not, most of the “ifs” become “buts” and the Indians, by virtue of their inaction, will again be scrambling to develop other revenue sources besides the more traditional route of good play-inspired attendance. And the circle goes unbroken.
The Browns have underwhelmed thus far in the off season, but it’s early. They're is still time to massively disappoint. The only move of consequence was the addition of failed former head coach Brad Childress as the offensive coordinator.
But like most things that happen in Berea, it looks like it will come with the odd condition in the form of not allowing Childress to exercise the full benefits of his title by being the team’s play caller. But perhaps Childress was chosen exactly for that reason. As Andy Reid's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, Childress didn't call plays then either.
Still, it smacks of a compromise reached between head coach Pat Shurmur and his boss, team president Mike Holmgren. Shurmur doesn’t appear to want to relinquish what little power he has and Holmgren needs to quell a fan insurrection over the awful state of the offense. Who better to step in and play the part of a well paid patsy then another client of both Shurmur’s and Holmgren’s and Tom Heckert's agent, Bob Lamonte, the out of work Childress?
Like most compromises of this nature, its structure suggests failure and not success. If the Browns need an offensive coordinator, and they do, then hire one and let him do the job. The last thing this team needs is another consultant, which is what Childress essentially has signed on for.
This is the kind of thing that really is starting to grate on the nerves of fans when it comes to Holmgren. Brought in to make tough decisions, he continuously backs away at the sign of any internal resistance. He kept Eric Mangini on for a year because Mangini literally pleaded to Holmgren to spare him the ax. It was nice for Mangini but awful for the fans and the progress of the franchise.
When he brought in Shurmur, who hadn’t been a head coach at any level, Holmgren allowed Shurmur to control the narrative by suggesting that he could handle both head coaching duties and the job of first assistant. It only sounds reasonable if the Browns were trying to cut costs on the number of assistants, but then when have the Browns ever been on that kind of austerity plan? They trend in the opposite direction, doling out money to meaningless coaches long since gone.
Armed with empirical proof that Shurmur (or any head coach) is ill suited to do the job of two coaches at once, Holmgren nonetheless again backed away from forcing Shurmur to relinquish some control. This can only mean more of the same for next year. If Childress lasts the entire season under this construct I’ll be amazed.
As for upgrading the roster, the first thing the Browns need to decide is which of their free agents they want to pursue. It would seem like D’Qwell Jackson and Phil Dawson are layups. More interesting is running back Peyton Hillis. Heckert is now leaking it to the media that the Browns do want Hillis back.
Hillis, when healthy, is exactly the kind of running back most teams need these days. While the presence of a running game is still important to the overall effectiveness of an offense, attitudes have changed on exactly what a presence means. There can be no doubt, for example, that a team does not need a Walter Peyton or a Barry Sanders to be successful. Quick, name me the starting running backs for the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.
Hillis is exactly the kind of effective no-name player that most teams look to have on board, as long as he doesn't cost too much. His problem is that he is injury-prone. He plays football like Grady Sizemore plays baseball and it leads to more injuries and less effectiveness.
The injuries have hurt Hillis’ bargaining power, but not in the same way they hurt Sizemore’s. Because there’s very little guaranteed money in the NFL, the chances are much better that a team would be willing to sign Hillis to a long-term contract. Sizemore couldn’t sniff anything more than the one-year deal the Indians offered him.
If Hillis is lost to free agency, it won’t be a major blow. I like his game, but he’s fungible with backs like Chris Ogbonnaya, a point that will become more evident when the Browns develop a better right side of the offensive line and employ credible receivers. At that point they’ll become far more pass oriented, like the rest of the league, with just a dash of running thrown in to keep teams honest.
The other Browns story that remains in the background concerns the fate of former Plain Dealer beat reporter Tony Grossi. The PD’s public editor, Ted Diadiun, gave a rather farcical account of what he termed a painful but necessary decision to demote Grossi, as I anticipated in my earlier column on this subject.
Diadiun pulled out the old “standards” card and essentially suggested that it wasn’t Grossi’s views of Browns owner Randy Lerner that got him in trouble but the fact that he expressed them publicly. Apparently the Plain Dealer discourages its sports reporters from having opinions.
Diadiun is making a distinction without a difference. Irrespective of whether Grossi expressed the opinion publicly, the fact of the matter is that he didn’t respect Lerner and that didn’t seem to matter to the PD until Grossi said it out loud.
And for what it’s worth, I’m not buying the whole “inadvertent tweet” defense Grossi offered in order to save his job. Maybe Grossi did mean to respond only privately but the fact remains that he didn’t and it doesn’t matter anyway. Whether he made his views of Lerner known publicly or privately is irrelevant. He held the opinion and it did impact in some fashion on his coverage. That isn’t a sin because every reporter has an opinion on his subject matter and many times it isn’t favorable. So be it.
Indeed, I think it’s cowardly for Grossi to try and hide behind a defense that relies on the phrase “inadvertent tweet”, two words that shouldn’t ever be uttered consecutively, by the way. He feels that way, he said it, end of story. But even more cowardly is the journalistic yarn the PD is hiding behind in order to assuage the feelings of a pathetic and irrelevant billionaire and his ineffective and weak first lieutenant.
The Plain Dealer demonstrated, to the detriment of the rest of its staff, that when the going gets tough, the reporters get tossed.
With the Super Bowl upcoming and Bill Belichick further affirming his status as one of the all time great head coaches in NFL history comes this week’s question to ponder: When Art Modell hired Belichick, he said it would be the last head coach he’d ever hire. If Modell has stuck to it, would he now be in the Hall of Fame?